June 30, 2009

Human, baboon gene alters malaria effects

U.S. genetic scientists say they've found variation in the same gene in humans and baboons produces the same kind of resistance to a malaria-like parasite.

Researchers at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, led by Gregory Wray, Susan Alberts and Jenny Tung, examined yellow baboons in Kenya's Amboseli National Park during three summers to determine their susceptibility to the parasite and to delve into the genetic basis for differences in the baboons' vulnerability to infection.

The study determined 60 percent of the Amboseli baboons were infected with the malaria-like parasite Hepatocystis.

We had no idea so many of them were carrying this parasite, Alberts said, noting researchers for years have tracked the baboons for any signs of injury or illness. Although the infection probably compromises the animals, they don't develop cyclical fever spikes or other immediately obvious symptoms as humans with malaria do, she said.

The scientists said their findings mark a turning point in primate research in that they are the first to connect any functionally important genetic variation in wild primates to complex, real-life consequences for the animals.

The findings appear in the June 24 online edition of the journal Nature.